Our own survival at stake

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Our own survival at stake

North Korea is an expert in surprise attacks. Its propensity for coup de main has never gotten old. Its quintessential attack was the dawn foray across the southern border on June 25, 1950. On Wednesday Pyongyang shocked the world by announcing that it successfully carried out a hydrogen bomb test. The news was startling as a hydrogen bomb would be much more powerful than the plutonium-based nuclear weapons the country tested before.

North Korea has always been unpredictable. Being predictably unpredictable has become a strategy for the Kim family dynasty. Current leader Kim Jong-un said nothing out of the ordinary in his annual New Year’s address. He did not even mention the nuclear weapons development he had highlighted in previous New Year’s addresses over the last three years. Most North Korean watchers commented that Pyongyang might be finally placing its economy ahead of its military ambitions. Pyongyang must be laughing for having fooled us for a few days, at least. Then again, it has always been a master of the art of inconstancy.

North Korea is hyping its feat of developing “a higher level of nuclear power” and “a nuclear deterrence of justice” against the United States. To Pyongyang, Washington is all that matters. The self-proclaimed H-bomb test - although many doubt that’s what it was at all - was aimed at drawing the attention of the leadership in Washington entirely preoccupied with Middle East affairs. It defiantly touted the test as the “biggest event for the race.” The race it refers to is our own, although we get no bragging rights on this side of the border.

A hydrogen bomb is more advanced than a typical atomic bomb and can be hundreds of times more destructive. North Korea is sending a clear message that it is a state capable of delivering nuclear weapons. President Park Geun-hye’s assessment was unequivocal: “The fundamental character of the North Korean nuclear problem could change.”

Nuclear weapons can define a state’s status in the world. Without them, North Korea would be an unpleasant regime ruling a poor country with conventional arms. The only shipments arriving at North Korean docks would be donations. As a nuclear state, it poses a threat to the entire international society. It must be dealt with. Aid shipments would be motivated by fear rather than pity. Pyongyang has learned the power and appeal of nuclear weaponry. North Korea therefore will never give up it nuclear capability. It would be a colossal strategic blunder.

Our perspective on North Korea’s nukes must radically change. We should no longer expect to settle things through dialogue. Decades of dialogue produced nothing. We were wrong to believe Pyongyang would inevitably come to the negotiating table because of economic hardship. North Korea has been unwavering in its pursuit of nuclear development.

Yes, the North Korean economy is a basket case. It is constantly short of electricity and food. People live meagerly. North Korea has endured terrible famines in the 1990s. Its society has become accustomed to hunger and poverty. Economic promises will never move Pyongyang to give up its nukes.

North Korea has succeeded in grabbing the world’s attention. International society will mull reinforced sanctions. Washington is likely to stand at the forefront. But our side of the peninsula remains calm. It has shrugged off the latest news as if hearing a boy crying wolf for the umpteenth time. People regard the North Korean nuclear bluff as an international matter, something for Washington and Beijing to deal with. We take on the bystander’s apathy. This projection of responsibility abroad comes from a lack of a secure sovereignty. It’s a lasting side effect of the lengthy six-party negotiating process.

During a summit with our president, Chinese President Xi Jinping repeatedly made mention of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. The relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang has soured since the young ruler ascended to the throne. There was an embarrassing incident in December when North Korea’s all-female Moranbong band suddenly called off scheduled concerts in Beijing over “communications issues.” Beijing clearly insulted Pyongyang. The surprise H-bomb test would further chill Sino-North Korean ties.

But the heart of the matter hasn’t changed much: Beijing cannot cut off Pyongyang because of its strategic value. North Korea remains the buffer zone against U.S. influence on the peninsula. China is testing the United States with South China Sea territorial issues. Those tensions will likely continue this year. Beijing’s ability to restrain North Korea will be limited. Its condemnations of this week’s nuclear test will be rhetorical and phoney.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responded more sharply. He said the test was intolerable and threatened Japan’s security. The North Korean provocation gives him a good excuse to accelerate his strengthening of Japan’s military power. Abe could make his country capable of starting a war again.

Our viability is at stake. We must reassert our sovereignty and self-determination. We must take matters to heart in order to solve the nuclear problem. It is our responsibility to solve the nuclear and economic problems of North Korea. We must embark on a public debate on a range of security issues including employing the U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system and pursuing our own nuclear development. By taking the initiative, we can muster the will, creativity and wisdom to address the problem. After all, we are not bystanders.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 7, Page 31

The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Bo-gyoon

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